Distance running inspiration Ted Corbitt passes away at 88
Wednesday 12 December 2007
Ted Corbitt, 1952 Olympian, training pioneer, administrator, and author, has passed away at the age of 88.
Born in 1919 in South Carolina, USA, into an African-American family, Corbitt as a child ran to and from school in an era of racial discrimination in which there was only school transport available for white children. Corbitt was never bitter and found great enjoyment in that daily regime. When as an older student he read a newspaper article about Theodore Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, the Narragansett Indian who won two editions of the Boston Marathon in the 1930s, that childhood enthusiasm for running was turned into a lifelong passion.
During college, segregation kept Corbitt out of many interstate meets and generally restricted his competitive opportunities as a runner. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a masters’ degree with honours in physical education and then studied to become a physical therapist, but always retained serious thoughts of competitive running.
At a time when there was very little knowledge in the area of professional training available to runners, most of his early self coaching was experimental. Using the methods of Czech Olympic legend Emil Zatopek as the foundation of his training he added a lot of resistance exercises to his own regime and married speed sessions with long slow runs.
Corbitt debuted at the marathon at the age of 32 with a 15th place finish in the 1951 Boston Marathon and after two further marathons was selected for the Helsinki Olympic team.
During a career which lasted well into his 50s Corbitt ran just under 200 marathons and ultra marathon races. His strength and stamina were legendary. At age 54 he ran his 175th marathon in Boston in a time of 2:49:16, less than one minute slower than his first marathon 23 years earlier. His fastest marathon time was 2:26:44 in 1958. He held the American record at 25 Miles, at the Marathon distance, and at 40 and 50 Miles.
Corbitt was the first President of the Road Runners Club of America, and as the third President of the New York Road Runners Club, he pushed for a masters category for runners over the age of forty, knowing that it would bring out the retired racers who couldn’t compete successfully any longer in the younger arena.
Largely responsible for the movement to adhere to strict measurement criteria and course certification, Corbitt’s 1964 book, ‘Measuring Road Running Courses’, became the benchmark for certified road race courses at the time and is the foundation upon which accurate road racing rests today.
Though little known to the general public, Ted Corbitt (b. January 31, 1919, near Dunbarton, South Carolina) is a key figure in the history of running. In a long career, he held many records as an athlete and was equally influential as an official of running organizations. Corbitt is often called “the father of long distance running.” He was an ultramarathon pioneer, helping to revive interest in the sport in the United States in the 1960s and 70s. New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte called Corbitt “the last surviving spiritual elder of the modern running clan”. In a Runner’s World feature naming him “lifetime achievement honoree”, writer Gail Kislevitz called Corbitt “[a] living symbol of durability and longevity”.
Corbitt also developed standards to accurately measure courses and certify races. The technique involved the use of a calibrated bicycle and was widely adopted worldwide.
Personal and professional life
Ted Corbitt was born on a South Carolina cotton farm. He ran track in high school and at the University of Cincinnati. Due to racial discrimination, which was common at the time, he was sometimes banned from track meets when white athletes refused to compete against him, being a black man. After army service in World War II, Corbitt earned a graduate degree in physical therapy from New York University, where he later lectured. He was a physiotherapist for more than 40 years.
 Racing and training
Corbitt competed in the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the Marathon at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. He won the Philadelphia Marathon in 1954. At various times, Corbitt held the U.S. track records for distances of 25 miles, the Marathon, 40 miles, 50 miles and 100 miles. He remained a nationally competitive runner well into his fifties.
For many years, Corbitt ran more than 20 miles a day from his home in a distant suburb of New York City to his job as a physiotherapist in Manhattan. On some days, he also ran home. At his peak, Corbitt ran up to 200 miles a week, far more than almost any other distance runner. Corbitt ran most of his miles at a fast pace. One workout he often ran involved 17 miles on the track, followed by 13 miles on roads. One week in 1962, Corbitt ran 300 miles. He then travelled to England and competed in the 54 mile London to Brighton road race, finishing fourth. Corbitt’s “killer weeks” continue to inspire some elite distance runners to this day.
 Other contributions to running
Corbitt has served as an unpaid official of many running organizations, including the Amateur Athletic Union. He was the first President of the Road Runners Club of America and the third President of the New York Road Runners Club. Corbitt served on various boards and committees for over 50 years. He helped create the masters division for runners over 40.
In the early 1960s, Corbitt led efforts to accurately measure and certify long distance road race courses in the United States. The technique, based on the work of John Jewell of Great Britain, used a calibrated bicycle wheel in conjunction with a revolution counter. This method is still used today.
As an official, Corbitt was often the anonymous “inside man” who remained out of the limelight and left promotion and public relations to others. Corbitt never coached, wrote a book or became a fitness guru. In a career that spanned decades, he earned almost no money from running. Corbitt is revered by a small group of knowledgeable runners, but remains unknown to almost everyone else.
A measure of public recognition finally came in 1998, when Corbitt was among the first five runners to be inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame. Corbitt was also inducted into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame on its inauguration in April of 2006.
At 87 (2006), Corbitt was still volunteering at ultramarathon races in New York and sometimes even competing. As recently as 2003, he completed a 24-hour race by walking 68 miles, finishing 17th in a field of 35. Some runners were awed by his presence; others had no idea who he was.
Corbitt has never smoked and his only drink was a single can of beer while in the army. He practices self-massage, carefully chews every mouthful of food, and drinks lots of water.
 References and external links
- ^ a b “Heroes of Running”, interview by Gail Kislevitz in Runner’s World, December 2007, p. 70. Corbitt confirmed 1919 to the interviewer as his year of birth.
- ^ Corbitt: The Story of Ted Corbitt, Long Distance Runner. John Chodes, Tafnews Press, 1974. The year of birth given in this book, 1920, and related age data, are erroneous per the preceding source, the athlete himself.
- ^ “John Jewell – the developer of modern course measurement in England”